I was recently asked to speak on the topic of “gender intelligence,” because apparently I am an expert in it. This was flattering and thus led me to go find out what gender intelligence is. Happily, I discovered that I actually am an expert in it. Cool.
Turns out, gender intelligence ― at its most basic ― comes down to the idea that we are never going to achieve gender equality or parity by insisting that women and men are exactly the same. We have to acknowledge the differences between the genders and figure out how to provide equal opportunities, equal pay and equal advancement for both based on the value each brings to the endeavor.
My particular expertise in this area comes from focusing on the differences in our brain functions. There are multiple, proven differences in our neural activity, decision-making, risk analysis, and all sorts of other processes because our brains evolved differently. Brain activity is hereditary and humans were living in tribes and specializing tasks by gender almost one million years before we had a prefrontal cortex ― the part of the brain that controls emotions, social interaction and decision-making. This “processing center” evolved into existence during eons in which male survival depended on success in hunting and combat and female survival depended on bearing and keeping offspring alive (”survival” here meaning the biological sense, where you live long enough to reproduce and your offspring does the same, thus your genes are passed on continuously).
We don’t have space to discuss all the specific differences this evolutionary process produced. That information could fill a book. In fact, it did. My book. Suffice to say, men and women developed distinct sets of survival instincts. Since men were the only ones leaving the caves, and thus were only encountering other men, as combat between tribes evolved into commerce between tribes, they were building systems of commerce that naturally rewarded their natural instincts, which were the same instincts that ensured survival in hunting and combat ― aggression, competition, hierarchy, quick decision-making.
No one was asking whether or not these traits led to the most profitable results, they were merely how all participants defined leadership and success. As women entered the workforce, they brought with them those instincts that ensured success at functioning within a tribe to keep the offspring alive ― consensus, group decision-making, inclusive communication, risk aversion. The workplace was simply not designed to recognize these traits as valuable.
In my work with women who need to crack the glass ceiling and the companies that want to demolish it, I show women how to adapt to display those traits that will get them rewarded and recognized, without sacrificing the value they bring as women. And every time I deliver this talk ― whether a seminar or a keynote or even in an executive training session ― I am asked the same question: Shouldn’t the company be the one to adapt to see our contributions as more valuable?
In short ― no.
Well, okay, they should. But they aren’t.
Not now, not yet, so let’s proceed from there.
There is little doubt that the workplace is in need of some serious disruption. Doing things the way we always have simply because we’ve always done them that way, using performance metrics that favor male instinct, ignoring unconscious bias ― these cannot possibly lead to the best outcomes. For example, why is deciding quickly and proceeding with conviction considered better leadership than getting all the facts before making a decision? How could that possibly work out better every time? It doesn’t.
But ― and this is where reality has to seep in ― 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male. They have little-to-no incentive to adapt. We would tend to think that the incentive is to do better, increase the bottom line, etc., but they don’t have to do better than they are doing now, they only have to do better than the competition, which is all being run the same way.
This is the reason women need to adapt (for now), again without sacrificing the traits we naturally bring to the table. We need to first get into the positions to do things in a more outcome-oriented way. We need to prove why and how that is better (especially financially) and then the workplace will evolve in response. It will not shift by external force, but by survival of the fittest. For many women, that feels like a ridiculous answer, even infuriating, but it keeps us in a space of reality, which is the only place that matters when we are fighting for equality.
My husband and I are binge-watching the TV series Mad Men right now, and when I think about that workplace existing only 50 years ago, I have to acknowledge how much really has changed. We have made so much progress, and this kind of progress accelerates at an accelerating rate, so the more quickly we women in the workforce do what it takes to get into positions of power, the more doors will open for the women who come after us and the more the tide will turn.
In business, what should happen and what will happen are often at odds, so we can strive towards the former even within the constraints of the latter. And if we want to achieve gender equality, we must use all of our gender intelligence.
Valerie Alexander is speaker, author and corporate trainer. She works with companies and organizations seeking to retain their top talent by making happiness in the workplace a priority and ensuring that female professionals are recognized and rewarded for their work. Her books on Happiness, Success and Success for Women can be found on Amazon.com, and she can be reached directly through her website, SpeakHappiness.com.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.